CHAMPAIGN — Save for a painting of his son Sergio during his playing days at Peoria Manual tucked in the corner of his living room, there is no evidence in Wayne McClain’s home that suggests he’s one of the most decorated basketball coaches the state of Illinois has ever seen.
No photos or newspaper clippings reminding of the four straight state titles he helped guide Manual to from 1994 to ’97 — the last three as the Rams’ head coach.
Nothing about the three Big Ten championship teams McClain was a part of as an assistant coach to Bill Self and Bruce Weber at Illinois, or the run to the national championship game in 2005.
“We’ve just never put any basketball stuff up here,” McClain said, sitting in a red leather chair positioned in front of his living room window, his favorite spot in the southwest Champaign home he’s shared with wife Robin for a decade. “I’ve never really had time to sort through any of it and put it somewhere.”
Considering what the 58-year-old has accomplished throughout his career, it’s somewhat surprising that the mementoes aren’t visibly present in his home. But to hear McClain, who was named to replace Scott Davis at Champaign Central after 11 years as an assistant coach at Illinois and one on Weber’s staff at Kansas State, speak about the most important aspects of what it means to him to be a coach, it makes sense.
“It’s not about the records and the championships and all that,” McClain said. “That’s all good and you want to have that success for the kids, but at the end of the day, I want the kids to say I was a major part of their lives; that I helped them become men.”
McClain sent numerous players on to the collegiate level, including former Illini stars Jerry Hester, Marcus Griffin, Frank Williams and Sergio. Those are the examples that people know. There are countless other former players who have gone on to excel off the court, too.
“My daughter was telling me the other night that someone she works with in St. Louis played for Coach McClain, and he said Coach McClain gave him great direction in life, made him a man,” said Weber, the current coach at Kansas State.
“When you talk about respect, it’s not just about the basketball court. It’s the way Wayne treats people and cares about people.”
The thing McClain’s former players at Manual, Illinois and Kansas State would be wise to inform the up-and-comers at Champaign Central is that the message doesn’t always come through in a friendly tone.
Though he might raise his high-pitched voice and choose to use words at times that would make foul-mouthed, Peoria-born comedian Richard Pryor blush, the message does have good intentions behind it.
“Coach McClain knew how to press your buttons, and he knew how to get the best out of me by saying certain things a certain way,” said Hester, who starred at Manual during McClain’s 17-year stint as an assistant under legendary coach Dick Van Scyoc. “You might not like the way he said it, but it was always something that was going to benefit you.”
Earlier this summer, Hester, who played professional basketball and now works as a financial adviser for the Downey Group, had a speaking engagement, and McClain’s tough love was a part of his speech.
Hester told the group the story of when he received his first letter in the mail from a college basketball program. The 15-year-old raced to McClain’s office at Manual, excited to show it to him. McClain told him that thousands of other players in the country received that same typed note on university letterhead and that they didn’t mean anything until they were handwritten from the coach.
“In the moment, you’re thinking, ‘Why is he so negative?’ but he knew which buttons to press with me and how I would take that and respond,” Hester said. “That was one of the moments in my life that I realized I needed to take that next step and put in more hard work. That helped me in my athletic career and has transformed to my professional career after basketball. Talking to me about hard work as a 15-year-old helped me out even to this day.”
Sitting in his favorite spot in the house, legs crossed, McClain tells the story of when Trent Meacham transferred to Illinois after a standout freshman season at Dayton.
“Trent had to sit out that year, and I just rode the heck out of him in practice,” McClain said. “I tried to keep a fire lit under him because it’s hard when you have to sit out. I called him soft. I thought he must have hated me.”
Last year after Weber and the rest of his staff were dismissed at Illinois, McClain received an email from Meacham, who was playing professionally in Europe at the time. In the email, Meacham thanked McClain for his tough love and getting the most out of him.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was one of the nicest notes I’ve ever gotten, and I really needed it at the time,” McClain said.
When McClain and the staff were let go following the 2011-12 season at Illinois, that represented a low point in the career of the 1972 Manual graduate. He was prepared to retire and go on with his life. He felt betrayed after giving so much to the university in his 11 years.
When Bill Self left Illinois for Kansas, McClain declined to leave with him, instead remaining at Illinois to keep the young, talented core led by Dee Brown and Deron Williams together when some players expressed a desire to leave.
“I’ve always said of two of my best moves, one was keeping Wayne when I got to Illinois,” Weber said. “For me, that was a no-brainer, and it was a great hire. I have so much respect for him, and he’s so loyal to Illinois.”
McClain turned down two opportunities to be an assistant at other programs while at Illinois and never used it as leverage for a raise. Illinois is where he wanted to be. Sergio had graduated from there, his daughter Brindeshie has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Illinois, and if he wasn’t a head coach somewhere, Champaign was where he and Robin wanted to stay.
“That was my whole disappointment — and I’m not going to touch on this a lot — in the way I was handled,” McClain said. “I felt like I sacrificed so much for that school and I was loyal, and it hurt me the way (they) handled me because I gave that school everything.”
McClain was at a point where he needed to refer back to all the times he motivated his athletes to pick themselves up and to keep going.
“After a while, Coach Weber, he’s really good, he kept calling. I kept debating for a long time, and then I realized I’m no different than the players I was motivating,” McClain said. “If I just sit here and wallow in pity, how could I be any different than anyone I’ve asked to get off the floor all those years? I had to do that for myself.”
The decision to spend last season at Kansas State wasn’t easy. Robin is the director of transportation for Unit 4 schools; she was staying in Champaign to work. Sergio and his young son Sergio Jr. were here, as was Brindeshie.
Robin spent a month in Manhattan with her husband and made it to a few games throughout the Big 12 championship season. But being apart from Wayne, whom she met while she was a student at Bradley and he was starring on the basketball team, was difficult.
“We had decided he would go for the year and we would re-evaluate, and I didn’t know what his decision was going to be. I’m really glad he’s back,” Robin said. “I felt like I was going to have to move out there if he decided to stay on. Not knowing was hard but when he made the decision to come back this way, that was great.”
At Kansas State, McClain was the director of player development, serving as a liaison between the players and Weber and also assisting in the athletes’ academic progress. Being a part of the program’s first conference title in 36 years was just the jolt McClain needed.
“That gave me a sense of knowing life isn’t as bad as you think it is, and you’re not as bad as you thought you were,” McClain said. “Doing it with Coach Weber, (former Illini assistant) Chris Lowery and helping (former Illini guard) Chester (Frazier) come along as a young coach was really special for me.”
The one disappointment in McClain’s career as a college coach is he never got the opportunity to lead his own program. When he left Manual to join Self at Illinois, the goal was to learn enough to one day have that chance.
Despite a few interviews, most notably at Bradley, McClain was never chosen to be a head coach.
“It’s a shame he didn’t have that opportunity because he played a big role in a bunch of Big Ten championships at Illinois and the success of the program,” Weber said. “It was probably one of the greatest runs in Illinois history for the tenure Wayne was there.”
The itch to head up his own program motivated McClain throughout most of his coaching career. Having returned to Champaign to take the job at Central, he’s at peace with the reality that it never happened and that dream has passed.
“I’m not angry; it just didn’t happen. There’s no reason to be angry. I just feel like for whatever reasons the ADs of America didn’t feel like I was worthy enough, but that doesn’t mean I’m not competent,” McClain said. “Anybody who has ever been to a practice at Ubben and saw me work on the floor, they know I’m a head coach. I’ve honestly never once felt that I wasn’t good enough to be a head coach, never. You just can’t make anybody hire you; they’ve got to want you.”
So now McClain’s focus turns to the Maroons, who are looking to bounce back after a 5-20 season in 2012-13.
Through his first few weeks with open gym and workouts, McClain says the players at Central remind him of the players he coached at Manual from an athletic standpoint.
“They’re not as big, their bodies aren’t developed, but there are some similarities,” he said. “I really think this is a good fit for me.”
While developing physical skills such as shooting, dribbling, passing and playing defense will be a focus from now until the season opener in November, developing a culture of toughness and accountability will be of utmost importance for McClain with the Maroons.
Instilling a hunger to get better and to want to be the best is the primary focus.
“What a lot of these young kids today are missing is discipline,” said Meacham, a former star at rival Centennial. “I hope those kids buy in and be willing to go through what he’s going to demand of them. I think he’s an awesome hire.
Obviously, he’s had tremendous success in high school as a head coach and college as an assistant. I think he’s just what they need, exactly what that program needs. They’ve had a good program, but nothing’s going to impress him, and he’s going to help those kids, obviously, in basketball, but more importantly helping them mature into young men. I think he’ll do an awesome job, and I’m excited for him.”
McClain’s 163-22 record in six years at Manual has folks in Champaign hoping for something similar during his run here. McClain’s teams will win games, but again, that’s not the most important thing.
“I just want to help these young men become better people,” he said.
It should be an entertaining ride.
“I hope Champaign Central is ready for Wayne McClain,” Weber said.
First things first
Wayne McClain is Champaign Central’s seventh boys’ basketball coach in the last 90 years. Here’s a look at how the others fared in their first year in charge of the Maroons:
COACH, FIRST YEAR RECORD (HIGHLIGHT)
Les Moyer, 1923-24 14-5 (District champion)
Harry Combes, 1938-39 18-9 (State qualifier)
Harold Jester, 1947-48 13-15 (State qualifier)
Lee Cabutti, 1956-57 24-6 (State qualifier)
Tom Croy, 1985-86 15-12 (Class AA regional champion)
Scott Davis, 1992-93 18-7 (Lost in Class AA regional final)
Where are they now?
A look at what Bruce Weber and his top three assistants from the 2011-12 season are up to now:
Bruce Weber, Head coach
Entering second season as the head coach at Kansas State after leading the Wildcats to a 27-8 record and a Big 12 Conference co-championship.
Jerrance Howard, Assistant coach
After serving as an assistant coach under Larry Brown at SMU, the 33-year-old Peorian is now an assistant to former Illinois coach Bill Self at Kansas.
Wayne McClain, Associate head coach
After working on Weber’s staff at K-State, McClain returned to central Illinois in the spring after being named the head coach at Champaign Central.
Jay Price, Assistant coach
Price and his family have remained in Champaign, where he is a consultant at the I Hotel and Houlihan’s restaurant in addition to consulting for Basketball Travelers Inc.